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Mary Cappello Interviews Danielle Trussoni, Author of Falling Through the Earth

Mary Cappello Interviews Danielle Trussoni, Author of Falling Through the Earth

Mary Cappello (January 19, 2009)
Author, Danielle Trussoni

Mary Cappello talks with Danielle Trussoni about the line between fiction and memoir, tonal registers in nonfiction, writing as an unsent letter, class and ethnicity, and more,
with a focus on Trussoni’s award-winning book, Falling Through the Earth.


Danielle Trussoni was born in Wisconsin and currently splits her time between the US and Bulgaria, home of her husband, the writer Nikolai Grozni. Educated at the University of Wisconsin and The Iowa Writers Workshop, Danielle has written for The New York Times Book Review, Tin House and The New York Times Magazine, among other publications. Her first book, Falling Through the Earth was awarded the 2006 Michener-Copernicus Society of America Award and was chosen as one of The New York Times best 10 books of 2006.  Danielle is currently the Hellum-Neal Visiting Writer at Shake Rag Alley Center for the Arts in Mineral Point Wisconsin.


“As a girl, I believed the war had taken him from us. It was an amorphous monster that would grab hold and pull us into it, kicking and screaming. Vietnam claimed Dad’s past, his future, his health, his dreams. It was never satisfied. It came to live in our house, eat dinner at our table, sleep in our beds. It trailed me home from school; it lapped at my heels as I walked to Roscoe’s. It was an elusive and inescapable thing skulking through my life, a Jack-the-Ripper presence that hid in alleyways and in the sewers, waiting to get me alone. We would ignore it, but it would not go away. If we managed to shake it, it would track us down, hungry for more. Although there was no way for me, as a child, to understand this presence, I knew, when I saw my father’s sadness, that he had never really left Vietnam.” (170)


An excerpt from Falling Through the Earth: A Memoir, Henry Holt and Company, 2006


MC: Your book is rendered with a breathtaking degree of command and control. I was struck, for example, by the ways in which material that could have easily become sensationalized --the fact of your father’s unacknowledged children from previous relationships; episodes of violence in the neighborhood bar—are rendered in understated tones. Or how you manage to stay inside of the multi-faceted space of the relationship between you and your father, a veteran of the war in Vietnam, and not veer from that. That nothing is wasted in your prose, and that you often achieve something tonally here that brings the magical into the same space as the harrowing. Could you talk about the tonal palette you were after in this book, and the literary models that your book is in conversation with?


DT: For the most part, I hoped to keep the tone at a lower register. I was acutely aware of the ease with which one can sensationalize family stories, especially one as dramatic as mine, and so I avoided the upper register. I admire writers of nonfiction who create the sensation of coolness in their prose. The flat, almost expressionless tone of Joan Didion and some of Kathryn Harrison’s nonfiction come to mind, although I didn’t consciously set out to imitate their work. I think that each piece of writing requires an original approach—a structure and tone that is big enough and sturdy enough to hold one’s vision. I hoped to create that capacious voice in my book.


MC: There’s a very clear sense in the book of generational trauma, unresolved, painful, impossible memories as something that we inherit from our forebears. Consequently, in Falling Through the Earth, it’s as though you are recounting your father’s war stories as though for the first time, as though they are your stories, even your memories. What are your thoughts on the relationship between writing, forging stories, and the unresolved traumas we are bequeathed?


DT: My path to writing came through the story I tell in Falling Through the Earth. Put another way, I think I taught myself to write to tell my story.  As a girl, I wrote in journals, and inevitably the stories that shaped my daily life wound up written down. Over the course of years of keeping notebooks and journals, I developed a habit and a passion for the written word that has created who I am. I don’t believe that there is any way to separate the story from the writer, or the impulse to capture the flickering moments of life from the hand that catches it. In the end, unresolved traumas had less to do with my desire to write than they may have originally. Over the journey, I had become more interested in the art of writing than my personal stake in it.


MC: I’m interested in the way we writers of nonfiction draw upon raw, documentary footage so to speak to make our memoirs. I mean the raw materials that constitute a kind of family archive with the memoirist a kind of curator or archivist—in the case of Falling Through the Earth, the bits and pieces of (chilling) memorabilia that your father has kept from his experience of the war in Vietnam, home movies from your childhood, your mother’s diary that you happen upon as a girl, the tapes you mention having made of his stories. How did you “find” those things in the first place, and then, come to value them, and then decide to make something out of them?


DT: Most of these things were simply around our house. I found the war souvenirs my father brought home from Vietnam at various times in my life, from when I was very young, and could not really begin to understand the significance of Vietnam, to when I was older and began to correlate the war with my father’s personal experiences. In writing Falling Through the Earth, I used everything I had, all the ‘raw material’ that I could find, and so it seemed natural to use suggestive, illustrative and evocative pieces of family history to carry much of the weight of the story. I think that nonfiction writers are scavengers in this respect: We take the bits and pieces of unwanted or overlooked material and put them to use in narrative.


MC: I’m not entirely sure what to make of this, but I found myself wanting to see literal photographs inside of the pages of this particular memoir. Of course the risk of using photos is that they might serve a merely illustrative function, but I wonder if photos could figure here the way they do in a book like W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants, as a companionate, unfinished narrative, as a route to revisiting the real/unreal, as emblems of a collective memory, too, but one that a nation can’t reckon with?


DT: I think that photographs would have been a good addition to the memoir.  I actually wrote a short essay about my father’s photographs from Vietnam (published in Tin House) and had a few pictures reproduced. The essay attempted to capture the psychic violence of a child confronted with the reality of war. Most of my father’s war pictures were somewhat gruesome, and so there was always the question of whether they might overpower the story in some manner.


MC: It seems obvious to me that you are your family’s reader. I mean the person who comes to read the family but also the person who finds her way to writing by reading. But this isn’t a story that you choose to tell in Falling Through the Earth—in a sense, how you came to discover books and yourself as a writer. Did your father’s storytelling play a part? What has it meant for you to be the family’s reader?


DT: My love affair with books is something entirely outside of my family. I don’t think it has much to do with my father at all and is, in fact, the very opposite of my experience with my dad. There is something essentially seductive about the silent, orderly imaginative space of books for a child who has had a chaotic and irregular upbringing. Reading, and eventually writing, were antidotal to my family life, not an extension of it.


MC: Gender never lines up the ways we’re told it is supposed to, but we try hard to keep it in its proper place, doing its prescribed thing. One thing that distinguishes your book as a Vietnam war narrative is that it shows you, a girl, to be deeply identified with your father, maybe even more so than any other member of your immediate family, including your brother. Were you ever aware of there being stakes involved in that identification? What happens to the kind of violent behavior you witnessed in your father when or if a girl tries to imitate it? What are a tough girl’s options as she morphs into adult femalehood?


DT: I think it would take another book to answer that question—it is so complex that I don’t know exactly how to address it. I suppose there was quite a lot of friction between the sort of person I was as a child and the woman I became. I recall being deeply out of place with many of the girls my age as a teenager, and feeling that I was always somehow more comfortable with boys. Obviously, there were many difficult transitions, especially when I grew to love femininity and the culture of women, valuing things that are often considered to be part of the female realm—reading, cooking, writing, etc. 


MC: Sometimes I think all of literature is a kind of un-sent letter. You know, that we all have letters that we write but never send, and that whatever requires that they not be sent is a sign of the fact that they exceed something, or exist in the realm of the un-allowed, the in-a propos, the taboo, and that literary texts become their repository, literature as the unsent letter now sent to an anonymous addressee. The end of Falling Through the Earth is marked by the episode of your having written, and sent a letter in which you tell your father like it is. And his reaction to that letter. How do you understand the relationship between that letter and the book that you came to write?


DT: That is a great question, because I think the letter was a kind of blue print to the book. I think the process of becoming angry enough to write (and then send) the letter definitely pushed me toward writing a memoir rather than a novel. I had completed a MFA in Fiction Writing from the Iowa Writers Workshop and always assumed that my first book would be a novel. In fact, I attempted to write my book as a novel first, and found that it didn’t work at all. So the letter opened up the possibility of nonfiction for me. And in the end, nonfiction was the only form this story could take.


MC: We find ourselves, at the turn of the 21st century, facing a somewhat impoverished set of terms for discussing memoir, at least as the form figures in the popular imagination. I mean, the attention paid these days (in the US, at least) to the question of whether a memoir is “true” or not, rather than whether it succeeds as a work of art in re-making the past, in figuring a relationship to memory, in riffing on what passes as “the real,” in transforming standard accounts of experience. As a writer and reader of memoir, I’m mostly interested in the writing voice, the consciousness on the page that the writing asks me to enter, and the particular work that the language is doing.  This is what I loved about Falling Through the Earth—the way that it was written. In fact, it seems to be structured like a novel, and your decision to move back and forth between your own journey to Vietnam by yourself as a woman in her early 20s, and a childhood marked by your father’s  psychic scars as a veteran of the war in Vietnam—this contrapuntal movement of the book—lends the book a narrative complexity and drive that is maybe associated with fiction. Could you talk about your decision to structure the book this way and your sense of the relationship between fiction and nonfiction?  What do you think of the possibilities that memoir holds out as a literary genre? What are memoir’s most significant challenges?


DT: I don’t see a difference, formally speaking, between memoir and fiction. For me, every story finds the form it needs, and that form must be capable of holding everything—from voice to narrative to all the small implications of the text—within it. So in writing Falling Through the Earth, I used the form that worked for this story: a fractured, contrapuntal, fast weave of three story lines. I have always believed that memoir has the greatest potential of any form of nonfiction. I disagree with the way it has been relegated to the lower end of the nonfiction food chain as ‘commercial’ or ‘therapeutic.’ In fact, I think that if memoir is done well, it can be extraordinarily political. I have very strong feelings about the Vietnam War, which I hoped to convey in a fresh way. Of course, the challenges have to do with memory, truth and subjectivity, but it seems to me that readers of memoir know that a memoir is a work of art, and that the writer is first and foremost an artist grappling to convey a subjective reality, not a journalist setting about to record a list of facts.



MC: Having talked with you at lunch the other day about your long sojourns in Japan, and later, Bulgaria, and now with your plans possibly to live in Italy, I found myself reading a sentence in your book in a kind of accented way—I mean that moment when the young Danielle is trying to find a way to leave her father, and you write, “This girl was planning her escape. She was rehearsing an elaborate bust-out.” How and at what point did you come to decide that you wanted to travel far and wide? Do you think those of us who have grown up in the working class that you so powerfully represent in the pages of Falling Through the Earth ever fully leave it? In what ways did your class background accompany you in your courageously solitary journeys to other parts of the world?


DT: I have been traveling every opportunity I can since I left home and, in many ways, I think that this nomadic lifestyle is in direct relation to my childhood, and to the restrictions of class. At a certain economic level, there is no movement. One is confined to the town of one’s birth. I have always wanted to break free of that. I have recently become an Italian citizen (my great-grandparents were Italian), and this has opened a doorway for me that I never imagined I would have. You’re right to suggest that class is impossible to leave entirely. I will always carry the characteristics of my working class family. But with time and with effort, I feel less constrained by class. This is, I’m certain, largely due to living in foreign countries for extended periods of time and learning to lose myself.


MC: It’s exciting to know that the memoir is being translated into Vietnamese. What are your feelings about that, how do you think the book will be received, and whom do you think its audience is likely to be?


DT: The Vietnamese edition was published in 2008, and I am extremely thrilled about it. I suspect that my negative experience with my father—his post-war problems-- is echoed a hundred fold in Vietnam.


MC: Tell me about the town that your father’s family emigrated from in Northern Italy. You made a trip there together not long before your father died, is that right? What was most important about that trip? Are there aspects of that trip that might make their way into writing? I’m also wondering if an Italian sensibility, habit of being, or traces of immigration, so to speak, informed the way that your father dealt with his war trauma.


DT: My father’s family comes from Campodolcino, a small town in the Alps. It is a beautiful place. My father wanted to go there, and so my husband and I took him. The trip was extremely important to my father, because we have always identified ourselves as Italian, and have cherished our Italian heritage. I hope to write about the trip someday, and I am planning to return to Campodolcino in the near future. So perhaps my time there will be material for a book.


MC: Do you know if veterans of the war in Iraq or their families are reading your book, and if so, what kind of response have you received from them?


DT: They are. I’ve received hundreds of emails and letters from veterans and the families of veterans. The response is usually very positive, although somewhat clipped. I think that the experiences people are having in Iraq are simply too raw, and cannot be easily sorted through at the moment. The afterlife of Iraq is going to be with us for a long time.


MC: Since my IADP Blog tag is “Cicchetti,” I’d like to close by asking you: what do you do when all that mainstream culture has to offer (I mean, the main meal) fails to satisfy? What’s your favorite snack?


DT: Chocolate! The darker the better!


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